Notes on the significance of Tamil monarchies


It becomes evident that the Tamil monarchies were significant enough to merit mention by the Mauryan emperor. The numerous principalities were nominally subject to one or the other of the kingdoms but in fact were enjoying as much autonomy as was rendered possible by the poverty of communication.

So the governmental polity of the Tamils of that age consisted of three major and several minor political units, the rulers of the former wearing long crowns of conical shape tapering to a point and the subordinate chieftains being content with shorter crowns.

The society which these monarchs ruled over could lay claim to an ancient civilization based upon overseas trade, local manufacture, brisk mercantile activity and an enduring agrarian tradition. Parimelalagar, the renowned commentator on the Kural, remarks that ‘the Chera, the Chola, the Pandyas’ have been ruling over the Tamil country ever since the day of creation. This very antiquity and the pride which goes normally with it have made Tamil civilization a continuous and conservative phenomenon in the history of South India.


Tamilaham was a cultural area and referred to the territory where Tamil was spoken they had a cultural commonness and were independent of the government which ruled them; they always belonged to Tamilaham and were Tamils; the literature which they g the beliefs they entertained and the lives they lived were common, with slight L variations.

Further this way of life was a constant factor in their history, very slowly if at all evolving and even then commonly affecting all of them; on the other hand the governments were changing phenomena and so the people at large entertained a cultural patriotism as distinct from the more common political patriotism.

Though this is a feature common to the whole of India-this itself constitutes a significant feature of Indian culture-it is found in an exaggerated manner among the Tamils in whom the peculiarities of culture generate a pride which surpasses anything that the political activities in Tamilaham could inspire Thus even in very early Tamil texts we find echoes of cultural pride and a self-consciousness which in weak moments could become aggressive.

The origins of the Tamil monarchies as we said before are not known but these kingdoms must have had a beginning before records about their origin could be maintained. We saw how even the earliest mention speaks about an advanced political and social condition in the Pandyan country. This could mean that the Tamils had an operative political system in the fourth century BC.


For such a system to evolve we could suggest a modest preparatory period of about 3 or 4 centuries; this would take us to the seventh or eighth century BC, nearly when Rome was founded and when the core of the Vedic period was coming to an end, and the great Greek epics were being popularized by bards who roamed about the eastern Mediterranean. This means that there was an interval of more than 15 centuries between the arrival of the Dravidians and the evolution of settled socio-political institutions in the Tamil country.

The nucleus of these institutions, however, is to be traced to earlier times than to the eighth century BC. During that interval political leadership was developing commercial contacts with the outside world were growing and social stratification, religious wisdom and popular superstitions were taking root. Of these the beliefs and the social systems were perhaps brought by them from where they came from; but the political system was clearly a local development from hazy beginnings.

Depending upon the different types of environment which prevailed in different parts of the Tamil country, different varieties of political leadership evolved. In the mountainous regions the superior hunter provided a natural leadership to his weaker fellow-hunters and once his superiority was exhibit; accepted and established, the leadership tended to become hereditary. In the pastoral areas the cowherd who owned most of the cows or who defended his herd most ably from cattle lifters became the natural leader of that community of cowherds.

In the agricultural regions! he who owned most lands and so was economically most prosperous used money power (or what was its equivalent) in ancient times to obtain ascendency over his compatriots; in the littoral regions the most successful fisherman who could brave the waves and kill the shark was accepted as the leader of the fisher-folk; he prayed for their welfare, led them on their fishing expeditions (literally) and protected them from those of different cultures.


The same was the case with the most successful high way robber who too defended his way of life as part of the dharmic order, and his men prayed to their relevant gods to protect them I and their system. These stratifications had their sub-stratifications and the whole constituted a complex communal organization involving a whole tradition about these divisions and what occasionally united them and what often kept them apart.

The hunter tradition developed, it would appear, in the western part of the T nil country and the Cheras inherited it. They adopted the bow, the chief weapon of the ancient hunter as their emblem which they inscribed on their flags and impressed on their coins.

Anthropologically the Cheras could be connected with the Kadavar though the Pallavas of later times too were occasionally called the Kadavar. The Pandyas were mainly pastoral but it looks as if their seafaring tendencies of more ancient times (a relic perhaps of their proto-historic contacts with the Phoenicians) had left the fish as their emblem. The Pandyas were surely related to the Minas or the Minavar (fishermen).

The leading tribesmen in the agricultural tracts worshipped the rain-god (who they called the Vendan i.e., Indra) prayed for uninterrupted supply of water to the crops and almost treated as a deity the river Kaviri which was the chief source of economic prosperity of the delta area.


In the case of the Cholas who ruled over most of the agricultural tracts, either because they had deforested the adjacent jungle tracts and brought them under cultivation i.e., had tamed the tiger which roamed the forests, or because they had conquered the hunters who stood for the tiger, they had adopted the tiger as their emblem.

The fisher-folk for simpler reasons inscribed the shark on their flags. These happenings of course belonged to very ancient times and explain how in historical times when royalty came to be well established each royal family adopted particular emblems.

The ancient Tamil society, whose traditions died hard, was tribal. The tribes were clusters of communities. Each tribe or in some cases each community had its own totem i.e., a reptile like the serpent, a bird like the fowl, the peacock or the eagle, a tree like the Kadambu or Margosa, a marine species like the fish or an animal like the monkey, tiger etc.

These totems were held sacred, worshipped and treated as protective deities who must be guarded and defended against enemies. These practices continued during historical times and their tutelary trees were called Kadimaram and they feared their destruction; and among them tribal enmities grew.


The differences among these tribes and communities kept them apart and even made them indulge in frequent wars. We have evidence of this even in the Sangam literature. In later times with the coming in of the Aryans whose Varna system with their gotra affiliation influenced them, the interaction of the gotra and the totem created the caste system with its enormous ramifications of pollution, hierarchy, etc.

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